In late December of 1974, 50 or so members of my extended family travelled from our widely dispersed homes to the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba. The trip was in honour of my Aunt Betty, who had worked there as a missionary for her entire adult life. Among her many duties, she was compiling the first dictionary of Papiamento, a Creole language spoken by residents of the “ABC Islands,” Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao. The Aruban governor was to give Betty a special citation marking the 25th anniversary of her residence, and this became the occasion for the 50-odd members of our clan to take a Caribbean holiday while at the same time celebrating one of our own kin.
As our flight from Miami pulled up at the Oranjestad airport, a welcoming committee hoisted a BON BINI sign. When we had cleared customs — an easy matter in those days — we boarded a bus to the camp where we’d be billeted, and learned first of all that Bon Bini is the Papiamento phrase for “Welcome.” On the short ride to Camp Washington (every ride in Aruba is short — the island is just 17 miles long by three miles wide), our welcome grew warmer by the minute. Outside the bus windows there were a few Christmas lights here and there strung on cactuses, and this sight struck me as almost absurdly funny.
By the time we had unpacked our luggage (in a religious, not military, camp) someone mentioned attending church the next morning, and I was puzzled. I’d already forgotten Christmas Day, feeling as far from my accustomed sleighbells and snow-laden pines as from a Bethlehem manger and desert kings arriving on camels. The temperature in Aruba is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit all year round, and some younger members of our troupe began pulling bunkbeds from the cabins to sleep outside under divi-divi trees in the yard (and continued doing this as long as we were there).
This was my first Christmas away from the prairies, and of course the incongruous images stood out most. White sand beaches instead of snowdrifts, groves of coconut palms but not a single burning yule log, music from dinga-linga boxes and steel bands rather than folks in thick parkas carolling about a poor man gathering his winter fuel. One of the quaintest sights of all was the Texas gates in front of fashionable American hotels, to keep out the goats that ran free over much of the island. Yet the beaches behind the hotels were public, so that anyone — registered guest or not — had access to them through the hotels’ properties. Everyone welcome to Aruba’s sands and turquoise sea.
Very late on Christmas Eve we took a swim in the Caribbean, and on Christmas afternoon we went body-surfing, where at home we’d have been tobogganing down some slippery hill. Aruba is a small island of desert and oasis, where the sharks are regularly fed off the rocky eastern shore to keep them far away from the peaceable beaches stretching out on the opposite side.
Despite all the unusual sights and a full slate of activities, there was in me an abiding sense of Christmas peace, and also this recurring thought: If the war machinery of the world can be made to hold still for 24 hours — as it mostly had been again — then why not for 24 days, or as many weeks?
Aunt Betty’s gala was a fancy Saturday-night affair at which she appeared humbly proud, if such an oxymoron may be permitted. On Sunday morning I was invited to preach (for I was a minister back then) with the aid of an interpreter, Reverend Bicenti Henriques, who many years later married Betty after his first wife died. I’ve long ago forgotten what I said in that callow sermon (but may it be forgiven), nor can I recall any Papiamento whatsoever except for the enchanting term Bon Bini. Since that Christmas, the outer world has not stopped revolving, and the challenge to bring peace to our inner worlds remains as pressing as ever.
Bon Bini to us all — to our nativity, to another new year, and to greater and deeper peace on earth.
Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy's Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors' writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.